When I was a high school English teacher, here’s how every morning went: slug a cup of coffee, jump on the train, frantically correct papers for 40 minutes, take roll, teach, answer questions, dispense discipline, dispense praise, and, in short, barely manage the near chaos of my first 160 public school students of the day without a breath, without a break.
By the time the lunch bell rang at the end of 4th period halfway through each day, I was fried.
Then I would walk to Noah’s Bagels for carbohydrates and cream cheese followed by an intoxicating surge of serotonin. Suddenly, I went from frazzled and over stimulated to nearly comatose. The second half of each day required incredible effort.
It was not until my early forties, long after my teaching career ended, that I discovered the cure for this cycle of over stimulation and collapse. The cure, which has become an almost daily routine, is to strip to my underwear, close all the shades, set my phone timer to 20 minutes, and take a nap. Usually, my dog Liam joins me, happily snoring by my side.
It’s like magic. Instead of crashing at noon and clawing my way through the rest of the day, this 20 minute ritual is like hitting the restart button.
When I can’t take a nap, I might take quiet walk around the block or just sit at my desk, turn down my office lights, and do breathing exercises. These “low stimulus” activities allow me to de-escalate from the intensity of each morning and enter the second half of each day raring to go.
Education and psychiatric researchers call my naps and mini-retreats “low-stimulus time outs.” Unlike the kind of time outs administered to children as a disciplinary measure, these time outs are self-administered an “antecedent” intervention to prevent hyper stimulation. Though much educational practice has focused on after-the-fact behavioral consequences, antecedent interventions can prevent the kind of over stimulation that leads to acting out or shutting down in the first place. Time outs and other low-stimulus strategies are designed to help people who, like me, may be unusually sensitive to external stimuli.
This can include, on the one hand, students who are attracted to stimuli, such as those with ADHD or with aggressive or risk-seeking tendencies. On the other hand are students who are stimulus avoidant, like those with Asperger’s syndrome or anxiety. Time outs, i.e. giving a student the option of retreating to a quiet, private place whenever symptoms of over stimulation begin, are just one of many strategies for creating a low-stimulus learning environment.
For stimulus-attracted students, a low stimulus environment is a way to extract peripheral stimuli that they would otherwise have a very difficult time tuning out in favor of central learning tasks. This makes it easier for the instructor to present the learning task at hand as the singular, most compelling stimulus to attend to. For stimulus-attracted students who generally need a higher than normal level of overall stimulation in order to maintain focus, simply removing peripheral stimuli is not enough. Core material must also be presented in a highly engaging manner that favors the student’s natural aptitudes and interests.
For stimulus-avoidant students, a low stimulus environment can have an emotionally and neurologically calming effect, reducing the likelihood that anxiety will snowball, leading to withdrawal or shutting down. Reduced anxiety for these students can lead to increased cognitive receptivity and sustained productivity.
Ironically, at the same time that low-stimulus environments are being touted as essential for special needs students, researchers are also advocating stimulus-rich settings or “enriched environments” to spur neurological activity and improve brain function. So which theory is correct? Should special-needs classrooms be “enriched” or should they be”low stimulus?” The answer, predictably enough, is both.
Students need a combination of challenge, stimulation, and change to promote neural activity. Studies show that we may actually grow new synapses and increase the size of our brains when we spend adequate time in an enriched environment, i.e. environments that are complex, frequently changing, challenging, and highly stimulating.
But too much stimulus at the wrong times for stimulus-attracted and stimulus-avoidant students can impede learning and trigger undesirable behaviors. Since every student is different and since every day is different due to moods, blood sugar, external triggers, etcetera, the ideal learning environment accommodates this individual and variable need for high and low levels of stimulation.
Following are some common sense tips for constructing a learning environment that is stimulus variable and customizable per students’ varied needs.
Teach Self-Advocacy: Students who understand and communicate their own highly variable stimulus needs have a critical tool for managing their own circumstances, in school, at home, and at work. Learning what works best for me and developing the confidence and social skills necessary to advocate for my own needs is a basic, but often overlooked, lifelong learning skill set.
Encourage Self-Management: Even in a shared environment such as a classroom or workplace, individuals can usually find ways to customize their own experience. For ADHD students who need a higher level of overall stimulation in order to sustain attention, quiet foot tapping, unobtrusive music (e.g. on an iPod), occasional walks, or stretching, can provide the kind of “meaningless” peripheral stimulation they need in order to focus on the task at hand. Other students may find that earplugs or sitting in a quiet corner helps them stay calm and focused.
Maintain a Consistent, High Standard: Rather than lowering learning standards, maintain a high and consistent learning standard for students. Instead of adjusting the standard itself, allow students to vary their learning approaches and pace. This way, challenging learning tasks are presented (enriched-environment approach) but in a manageable way (low-stimulus approach).
Create a Time Out Room: Provide students with a quiet, soothing place to go when they become agitated or overwhelmed. Set a clear and simple protocol for taking advantage of this option and make the room easily accessible with appropriate, but unobtrusive, supervision.
Foster Self-Awareness and Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a basic DBT skill that can be fostered in the classroom through real-time teacher-student dialogue, debriefing episodes of acting-out or shutting-down behavior, and journaling. Helping students attend to and honor their own rising stress levels can allow them to more effectively manage themselves and their circumstances.
Maintain a Default Low-Stimulus Environment: In general, maintain a predictable classroom schedule and a quiet, distraction-free classroom environment. Begin and end class sessions predictably in a low-stimulus fashion. When enriched activities are introduced, do so judiciously in the middles of the session, returning to routine at the end of class. This approach can provide a manageable balance of enriched and low stimulus elements.